Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land

Byzantine Floor Mosaic, 500-550 A.D. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Brothels, Baths and Babes:
Prostitution in the Byzantine Holy Land

When addressing Byzantium it appears that much of the attention of academics and those that read this blog is focused on the obvious subjects; military history, imperial history; the rise and fall of the emperors; iconoclasm; art; and the development of the Orthodox Church. In most research very little has been written on the subject of sex.

The article below explores both the formal and informal arrangements that developed, typically centring around the triad of the wife, the concubine and the courtesan.

By Claudine Dauphin
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Graeco-Roman domestic sexuality rested on a triad: the wife, the concubine and the courtesan. The fourth century BC Athenian orator Apollodoros made it very clear in his speech Against Neaira quoted by Demosthenes (59.122) that ‘we have courtesans for pleasure, and concubines for the daily service of our bodies, but wives for the production of legitimate offspring and to have reliable guardians of our household property’. Whatever the reality of this domestic set-up in daily life in ancient Greece, this peculiar type of ‘ménage à trois’ pursued its course unhindered into the Roman period: monogamy de jure appears to have been very much a façade for polygamy de facto. The advent of Christianity upset this delicate equilibrium. By forbidding married men to have concubines on pain of corporal punishment, canon law elaborated at Church councils took away from this triangular system one of its three components. Henceforth, there remained only the wife and the courtesan.

If we are to believe the Lives of the holy monks of Byzantine Palestine, the Holy Land (in particular the Holy City of Jerusalem, the aim of pilgrimages at the very heart of Christianity) was replete with ‘abodes of lust’ and prostitutes tracked down the monks in their secluded caves near the River Jordan. Thus, we are faced with a paradox: the coexistence of holiness and debauchery, of Christian asceticism and lust.

Lest we forget that virtue is meaningless without vice, that holiness cannot exist without lewdness, a fifth century AD Gnostic hymn from Nag-Hammadi in Middle Egypt proclaimed: ‘I am She whom one honours and disdains. / I am the Saint and the prostitute. / I am the virgin and the wife. / I am knowledge and I am ignorance. / I am strength and I am fear. / I am Godless and I am the Greatness of God’.

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem appeared as a Prostitute in dire need of purification through divine punishment (Ez. 16 and 23). Her degradation contrasted with her original faithfulness: ‘How the faithful city has become a harlot, she that was full of justice!’, the prophet Isaiah (1:21) lamented. St John applied the epithet Prostitute ‘clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls!’ (Rev. 18.16-17) to the idol-worshipping Great City, Babylon, Rome and ultimately to any great urban concentration.

A similar opinion was held by the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud in the fifth century AD who considered that a bachelor who succeeded in remaining chaste in a large city was without any doubt an excessively pious man. Likewise, the monks of Nitria (modern Wadi Natrun), of the Kellia and of Scetis in Egypt and those of the Judaean Desert in Palestine, considered that the city was par excellence a den of iniquity, of temptation and of sin. Harbours with international maritime trade links such as Alexandria and Beirut, and the universal Christian capital Jerusalem, both provided their innkeepers and harlots with a cosmopolitan clientèle of residents, travellers and pilgrims.

Ancient Greece Sex


In the streets

Byzantine erotic epigrams, notably those of Agathias Scholasticus in the sixth century, generally describe encounters with prostitutes in the street.[5] The winding, dark alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem were particularly appropriate for soliciting by scortae erraticae or ambulatrices. These lurked under the high arches which bridged the streets of the Holy City and walked up and down the cardo maximus.

In the small towns of Roman and Byzantine Palestine, however, it seems that the squares (not the streets) were the favourite hunting-grounds of prostitutes. Rabbi Judah observed: “‘How fine are the works of this people [the Romans] ! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths !’. Rabbi Yose was silent. Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai answered and said, ‘All what they made, they made for themselves; they built market-places, to set harlots in them; baths to rejuvenate themselves; bridges to levy tolls for them’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b).


At Home

Some harlots worked at home, either on their own account, such as Mary the Egyptian whose Life was written down in the sixth century by Sophronios, the last Patriarch of Jerusalem before the Arab Conquest, or for a pimp. On the evidence of the legislation of Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century, in particular Novella 14 of 535, it is clear that providing housing was part of the deal which the pimps of Constantinople struck with the fathers of the young peasant girls whom they bought in the capital’s hinterland.

Housing did not necessarily mean a house, and was frequently only a shack, hut or room. Byzantine prostitutes were relegated to ‘red light districts’ in the same way that the prostitutes of Rome lived and worked predominantly in Subura and near the Circus Maximus, thus to the north and south of the Forum. In the late sixth-century Life of John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria, Leontios of Neapolis describes a monk coming to Tyre on some errand. As he passed through ‘the place’, he was accosted by a prostitute who cried out: ‘Save me, Father, like Christ saved the harlot’, this referring to Luke 7:37. These districts were generally the most destitute areas in town.

The Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 113b) relates how Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshaia, both poor cobblers in the Land of Israel, dwelt in a street of harlots for whom they made shoes. The prostitutes were so impressed by these rabbis’ chastity (for they would not even lift their eyes to look at the girls) that they took to swearing ‘by the life of the holy rabbis of Eretz Yisrael’!

In Tavernae

In city inns (tavernae) as well as in the staging posts for change of mounts (mutationes) or overnight stay (mansiones) along the official Roman road network (the cursus publicus), all the needs of travellers were catered for by the barmaids.

They served them wine, danced for them and often led them upstairs to the rooms on the upper floor. In fact, according to the Codex Justinianus, a barmaid could not be prosecuted for adultery, since it was presumed that she was anyway a prostitute (CJ 9.9.28).

In order to prevent Christian travellers from falling prey to sexual dangers of this sort, ecclesiastical canons forbade the clergy to enter those establishments. Soon, therefore, ecclesiastical resthouses (xenodochia) and inns specifically for pilgrims (pandocheia) run by members of the clergy, sprang up along the main pilgrim routes.

Sex in Pompeii


Prostitution was also institutionalised under the form of brothels which Juvenal called lupanaria (Sat. 11.172-173) and Horace fornices (Ep. 1.14.21). These, John Moschus described in his sixth-century Spiritual Meadow as a ‘house of prostitution’ in Jericho or even more vaguely ‘an abode of lust’ in Jerusalem (Prat. Spir. 17). The prostitutes who were employed in these establishments were slaves and the property of a pimp (leno) or of a ‘Madam’ (lena).

The very name of the prostitute in Tyre who called out to a monk to save her – Kyria Porphyria – is telling. She was so used as a ‘Madam’ to boss other women, that once she had been reformed and had convinced other harlots (presumably her former ‘girls’) to give up prostitution, she organised them into a community of nuns of which she became the abbess – the mirror image of her brothel.

A Byzantine brothel has recently been unearthed in the course of excavations at Bet She’an, ancient Scythopolis, capital of Palaestina Prima. At the heart of this thriving metropolis, a Roman odeon founded in the second half of the second century was partly destroyed in the sixth century. Byzantine Baths adjoined it to the west. To the south-west, the second row of shops of the western portico of the impressive Street of Palladius was also dismantled to make way for a semi-circular exedra (13x15m). Each half of the exedra comprised six trapezoidal rooms with front doors. Some of these rooms also opened onto a corridor or a hall at the back of the building. In one room, a staircase led to an upper storey. Some rooms had niches with grooves for wooden shelves. The apses at both ends of the exedra and in the centre of the semi-circle, as well as the façades of the rooms were revetted with marble plaques, most of which are now lost, there only remaining holes for the nails which held these plaques in position. The inner faces of the walls of these rooms exhibited two coats of crude white plaster.

The floor of most of these rooms was paved with mosaics depicting geometric motifs enclosing poems in Greek, animals and plants, and lastly, in an emblema, a magnificent Tyche crowned by the walls of Scythopolis and holding a cornucopia. The mosaic pavements of some rooms had been subsequently replaced by bricks or a layer of crushed lime. Traces of crude repairs in the mosaics and the insertion of benches in other rooms indicated that the building had undergone various stages of construction. A semi-circular courtyard (21x30m) stretched in front of the twelve rooms. Towards the street, it was closed off by a set of rooms which incorporated the shops previously at the northern end of the portico of the Street of Palladius, whilst putting them to a different use. This row of rooms which was probably interrupted by the main entrance into the complex, opened onto a portico with an opus sectile floor of black and white marble. Two steps running for the entire length of the portico enabled access from the street. The portico and the rooms had a tiled roof. The exedra was demolished at the end of the sixth century or in the early seventh century.

The cabins of the Bet She’an exedra are reminiscent of the cells of the Pompeii lupanarium which consisted of ground floor rooms, each equipped with a stone bed and a bolster. An external staircase provided access to the first floor balcony onto which opened five more spacious rooms. At Bet She’an, the back doors of some rooms on the ground floor enabled clients who were keen to remain anonymous, to enter an abode of lust without being seen from the main street and thus to surreptitiously satisfy their sexual fantasies.

The portico where the girls strolled in the hope of attracting passers-by from the Street of Palladius, as well as the neighbouring Byzantine Baths were part of a fascinating network: soliciting at the Baths, in the portico and in the exedra courtyard, followed by sex in the cabins; and at the back of the building, an entrance-and-exit system for supposedly ‘respectable clients’.

The Roman / Byzantine Provinces of the greater Holy Land.

(Classics Ireland.com)          (Express.co.uk - The Roman Empire of sex)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Obelisk of Theodosius

Obelisk of Theodosius

The Obelisk of Theodosius is the Ancient Egyptian obelisk of Pharaoh Tutmoses III re-erected in the Hippodrome of Constantinople by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I in the 4th century AD.

The obelisk was first set up by Tutmoses III (1479–1425 BC) to the south of the seventh pylon of the great temple of Karnak. The Roman emperor Constantius II (337-361 AD) had it and another obelisk transported along the river Nile to Alexandria to commemorate his ventennalia or 20 years on the throne in 357.

The other obelisk was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus in Rome in the autumn of that year, and is today known as the Lateran obelisk, whilst the obelisk that would become the obelisk of Theodosius remained in Alexandria until 390, when Theodosius I (378-392 AD) had it transported to Constantinople and put up on the spina of the Hippodrome there.

The Obelisk of Theodosius is of red granite from Aswan and was originally 30m tall, like the Lateran obelisk. The lower part was damaged in antiquity, probably during its transport or re-erection, and so the obelisk is today only 18.54m (or 19.6m) high, or 25.6m if the base is included. Between the four corners of the obelisk and the pedestal are four bronze cubes, used in its transportation and re-erection.

Each of its four faces has a single central column of inscription, celebrating Tutmoses III's victory on the banks of the river Euphrates in 1450 BC.

The marble pedestal had bas-reliefs dating to the time of the obelisk's re-erection in Constantinople. On one face Theodosius I is shown offering the crown of victory to the winner in the chariot races, framed between arches and Corinthian columns, with happy spectators, musicians and dancers assisting in the ceremony. In the bottom right of this scene is the water organ of Ctesibius and on the left another instrument.

A recreation of the Hippodrome of Constantinople and
the Obelisk of Theodosius.

Chariot Race at the Hippodrome
The Obelisk of Theodosius is featured in these videos.

Bottom of the inscription (south face).


The pedestal's east face bears an inscription in five Latin hexameters. This is slightly broken at the bottom but it was transcribed in full by travellers in the 16th century. It reads:
"Though formerly I opposed resistance, I was ordered to obey the serene masters and to carry their palm, once the tyrants had been overcome. All things yield to Theodosius and to his everlasting descendants. This is true of me too - I was mastered and overcome in three times ten days and raised towards the upper air, under governor Proculus."
On the west face the same idea is repeated in two elegiac couplets rendered in Byzantine Greek, though this time it reports that the re-erection took 32 days (TPIAKONTA ΔYO, last line) not 30:
"This column with four sides which lay on the earth, only the emperor Theodosius dared to lift again its burden; Proclos was invited to execute his order; and this great column stood up in 32 days."

Top of the inscription (south face).

The Emperor and his court. (north face).

Submission of the barbarians (west face).


(Obelisk of Theodosius)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Birth of the Eastern Roman Army (395 AD)

January 17, 395 AD
The Birthday of the Eastern Roman Army

The birthday of the army of the Eastern Roman Empire.  It is a rare thing for a historian to be able to point to an exact day for a major historical change.

But on January 17, 395 Theodosius I (r. 379-95), the last Emperor of a united Roman Empire died.  The day before on January 16th, Emperor Theodosius commanded Roman troops stationed from Mesopotamia to Morocco to England to Bulgaria.  But at some point on the 17th a sole commander-in-chief of the Roman military machine died.

The death of the Emperor led to the final split of the Empire into two political entities, the West (Occidentale) and the East (Orientale).

For many decades to come the Eastern Roman Army would not have looked or acted much different from its Western counterpart fighting off the barbarian invasions in Gaul and Italy.  Any changes in unit structure, uniforms and tactics would have been very gradual.  The Eastern Roman military evolution would have been based on changes the economy and the types of enemies they faced.

Emperor Theodosius I
The last Emperor of a united Empire.
The Roman Legion would fade and Eastern infantry units would evolve to be more defensive in nature in order to man fortresses and strong points against invaders.  Eastern Roman Cavalry units would mirror their Persian enemies and would grow to become the mailed fist of the army in combat.

The general military organization of the East would roughly stay the same until the Arab invasions of the 600s.  With  the permanent loss of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Carthage to the Arabs in the 7th century the Eastern Roman Army reorganized by themes to better react to local incursions by Muslim forces.

The Eastern Roman Army is thus the intermediate phase between the Late Roman Army of the 4th century and what could be called the Byzantine Army of the 7th century onwards.  Though it should be noted, they easterners always called themselves Romans up to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The division into two sections recognized a growing cultural divergence. The common language of the East had always been Greek, while the West was Latin-speaking.

This was not per se a significant division, as the Empire had long been a fusion of Greek and Roman cultures and the Roman ruling class was entirely bilingual. But the rise of Christianity strained that unity, as the cult was always much more widespread in the East than in the West, which was still largely pagan in 395.

Constantine's massive reconstruction of the city of Byzantium into Constantinople, a second capital to rival Rome, led to the establishment of a separate eastern court and bureaucracy.

The Army of Theodosius I (395)


The size of the Eastern army in 395 is controversial because the size of individual regiments is not known with any certainty. Plausible estimates of the size of the whole 4th-century army (excluding fleets) range from c. 400,000 to c. 600,000. This would place the Eastern army in the rough range 200,000 to 300,000, since the army of each division of the empire was roughly equal.
Late Roman Empire Infantry

The higher end of the range is provided by the late 6th-century military historian Agathias, who gives a global total of 645,000 effectives for the army "in the old days", presumed to mean when the empire was united. This figure probably includes fleets, giving a total of c. 600,000 for the army alone.

Agathias is supported by A.H.M. Jones' Later Roman Empire (1964), which contains the fundamental study of the late Roman army. Jones calculated a similar total of 600,000 (exc. fleets) by applying his own estimates of unit strength to the units listed in the Notitia Dignitatum. Following Jones, Treadgold suggests 300,000 for the East in 395.

But there are strong reasons to view 200,000 soldiers as more likely:
  1. Jones' assumptions about unit strengths, based on papyri evidence from Egypt, are probably too high. A rigorous reassessment of the evidence by R. Duncan-Jones concluded that Jones had overestimated unit sizes by 2-5 times.
  2. The evidence is that regiments were typically one-third understrength in the 4th century. Thus Agathias' 600,000 on paper (if it is based on official figures at all) may in reality have translated into only 400,000 actual troops on the ground.
  3. Agathias gives a figure of 150,000 for the army in his own time (late 6th century) which is more likely to be accurate than his figures for the 4th century. If Agathias' 4th- and 6th-century figures are taken together, they would imply that Justinian's Empire was defended by only half the troops that supposedly defended the earlier empire, despite having to cover even more territory (the reconquered provinces of Italy, Africa and S. Spain), which seems inherently unlikely.
The discrepancy in army size estimates is mainly due to uncertainty about the size of limitanei regiments, as can be seen by the wide range of estimates in the table below. Jones suggests limitanei regiments had a similar size to Principate auxilia regiments, averaging 500 men each. More recent work, which includes new archaeological evidence, tends to the view that units were much smaller, perhaps averaging 250.

There is less dispute about comitatus regiments, because of more evidence. Treadgold estimates the 5 comitatus armies of the East as containing c. 20,000 men each, for a total of c. 100,000, which constitutes either one-third or one-half of the total army.

About one third of the army units in the Notitia are cavalry, but cavalry numbers were less than that proportion of the total because cavalry unit sizes were smaller. The available evidence suggests that the proportion of cavalry was about one-fifth of the total effectives: in 478, a comitatus of 38,000 men contained 8,000 cavalry (21%).

In 395 AD the Roman Empire is forever divided into two nations
under two Emperors, two Senates and two armies and two navies. 

Click on chart to enlarge
High command structure of the East Roman army c. AD 395. Commands and army sizes based on data in the Notitia Dignitatum Orientis. Eastern magistri militum, in command of comitatus armies, reported direct to the Emperor. Duces are shown reporting to their diocesan magister militum, as suggested by Jones and Elton. Locations given indicate usual winter quarters in this period.

Command structure

The later 4th-century army contained three types of army group: (1) Imperial escort armies (comitatus praesentales). These were ordinarily based near Constantinople, but often accompanied the emperors on campaign. (2) Regional armies (comitatus). These were based in strategic regions, on or near the frontiers. (3) Border armies (exercitus limitanei). These were based on the frontiers themselves.

The command structure of the Eastern army, as recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum, is represented diagramatically in the organisation chart (above).

By the end of the 4th century, there were 2 comitatus praesentales in the East. They wintered near Constantinople at Nicaea and Nicomedia. Each was commanded by a magister militum ("master of soldiers", the highest military rank) Each magister was assisted by a deputy called a vicarius.

There were 3 major regional comitatus, also with apparently settled winter bases: Oriens (based at Antioch), Thraciae (Marcianopolis), Illyricum (Sirmium) plus two smaller forces in Aegyptus (Alexandria) and Isauria. The large comitatus were commanded by magistri, the smaller ones by comites. All five reported direct to the eastern Augustus. This structure remained essentially intact until the 6th century.

Late Roman Empire Cavalry
About half the Eastern Roman Army continued to be recruited in
the Latin-speaking Danubian regions of the Eastern Empire.
Latin remained as the operating language of the army into the late 6th century.


Regiments were classified according to whether they were attached to the comitatus armies (comitatenses) or border forces (limitanei). Of the comitatenses regiments, about half were palatini (literally: "of the palace"), an elite grade.

The strength of army regiments is very uncertain and may have varied over the 5th/6th centuries. Size may also have varied depending on the grade of the regiment. The table below gives some recent estimates of unit strength, by unit type and grade:


Estimated size of regiments in 4th-century army
unit type
(inc. palatini)
unit type
(inc. palatini)
Ala120-500Auxilia800-1,200 or 400-600400-600

The overall picture is that comitatenses units were either c. 1,000 or c. 500 strong. Limitanei units would appear to average about 250 effectives. But much uncertainty remains, especially regarding the size of limitanei regiments, as can be seen by the wide ranges of the size estimates.

Scholae  -  The Scholae Palatinae were elite cavalry regiments that acted as imperial escorts. At the end of the 4th century, there were 7 scholae (3,500 men) in the East. They were outside the normal military chain of command as they did not belong to the comitatus praesentales and reported to the magister officiorum, a civilian official. However, this was probably only for administrative purposes: on campaign, the tribunes (regimental commanders) of the scholae probably reported direct to the emperor himself. 40 select troops from the scholae, called candidati from their white uniforms, acted as the emperor's personal bodyguards.

Comitatenses  -  Comitatenses cavalry regiments were known as vexillationes, infantry regiments as either legiones or auxilia. About half the regiments in the comitatus, both cavalry and infantry, were classified as palatini. They were concentrated in the comitatus praesentales (80% of regiments) and constituted a minority of the regional comitatus (14%). The palatini were an elite group with higher status and probably pay.

The majority of cavalry regiments in the comitatus were traditional melee formations (61%). These regiments were denoted scutarii, stablesiani or promoti, probably honorific titles rather than descriptions of function. 24% of regiments were light cavalry: equites Dalmatae, Mauri and sagittarii (mounted archers). 15% were heavily armoured shock charge cavalry: cataphracti and clibanarii

Limitanei  -  In the limitanei, most types of regiment are present, including the old-style alae and cohortes of the Principate auxilia.

The limitanei, meaning "the soldiers in frontier districts" (from the Latin phrase limes, denoting the military districts of the frontier provinces established in the late third century).

They reflect the organization of the Late Roman army and subsequently the Byzantine Empire. They were light infantry similar to spear men and served as a policing force to patrol Rome's distant, far-flung border regions and when necessary, to delay advancing enemy forces until counter-attacks could be arranged. They are historically significant in that their appearance, as part of a plan of military reforms enacted in the late 3rd century, was able to extend the life of the Roman Empire by pushing back the great barbarian invasions of late antiquity. They worked in conjunction with the comitatenses.


In 395, the army used Latin as its operating language. This continued to be the case into the late 6th century, despite the fact that Greek was the common language of the Eastern Empire. This was not simply due to tradition, but also to the fact that about half the Eastern army continued to be recruited in the Latin-speaking Danubian regions of the Eastern Empire.

An analysis of known origins of comitatenses in the period 350-476 shows that in the Eastern army, the Danubian regions provided 54% of the total sample, despite constituting just 2 of the 7 eastern dioceses (administrative divisions): Dacia and Thracia. These regions continued to be the prime recruiting grounds for the East Roman army e.g. the Emperor Justin I (r. 518-27), uncle of Justinian I, was a Latin-speaking peasant who never learnt to speak more than rudimentary Greek.

The Romanized Thracian (Thraco-Roman) and Illyrian inhabitants of those regions, who came to be known as Vlachs by foreigners in the Middle Ages, retained the Roman name (Romanians) and the Latin tongue.

Shield insignia of regiments under the command of the Magister Militum Praesentalis II of the East Roman army c. 395 AD. Page from the Notitia Dignitatum.

The insignia of the Eastern scholae, from the Notitia Dignitatum. 
The Scholae Palatinae (literally "Palatine Schools", in Greek: Σχολαὶ, Scholai), were an elite military guard unit, usually ascribed to the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great as a replacement for the equites singulares Augusti, the cavalry arm of the Praetorian Guard.
The Scholae survived in Late Roman and later Byzantine service until they disappeared in the late 11th century, during the reign of Alexios I Komnenos. 

Late Roman Empire Infantry

(Late Roman Army)          (Byzantine Army)

(Theodosius I)          (Eastern Roman Army)